Thursday, June 09, 2011

Abraham Lincoln's Opera Glasses and Assorted Ripper Artifacts.... The Facts

Assassination of Lincoln smaller

An article in today's Washington Post discusses a pair of opera glasses that President Abraham Lincoln supposedly had in his possession when he was assassinated at Ford's Theatre, Washington, D.C., on the night of 14 April 1865. The opera glasses are due to be offered for sale at Sotheby's auction house in New York next week along with a rare letter in Lincoln's hand of 1864 as well as a letter of Robert E. Lee and a flag from the Birkenhead-built Confederate blockade runner C.S.S. Alabama. See the link through the title above which will lead you to the article on the sale by Washington Post writer Michael E. Ruane.

The trouble is, although the same opera glasses have been sold for sizeable sums before ($22,000 in 1979 and $424,000 in 2004) and are now expected to reach as much as $700,000, as the article relates, there is no proof that they are actually President Lincoln's opera glasses. They are described as German manufactured opera glasses of gilt metal and black enamel. The story is that a Union officer discovered the opera glasses in the middle of Tenth Street after the mortally wounded President was carried across the street to the Petersen House, where he would die hours later. Captain James M. McCamly of the 70th New York Infantry found the opera glasses and believed they had belonged to the chief executive. But did they? Sotheby's auction catalogue notes, "As Lincoln was being transported, the opera glasses--perhaps still in Lincoln's hands, perhaps tangled in his clothing--fell to the street." As if that is exactly the way it happened. But isn't it just as conceivable that the binoculars were dropped by one of the hundreds of theatre-goers in the audience disgorging from Ford's Theatre in the chaos of the aftermath of the assassination?

That the opera glasses would still have been clutched by the President after he had received the first attentions of doctors inside the theater seems inconceivable despite Sotheby's auction catalogue musing on that possibility. Captain McCamly's great grandson, in researching the story in the later 1960's heard about an opera glass case found in the Presidential box, and believed the opera glasses belonged to it. But, according to a National Parks Service employee, it appears out that the case belonged to Mrs. Lincoln--and her opera glasses are accounted for, though are now in private hands (the glasses case itself is on display at Ford's). Hmmmmmm.

This situation calls to mind a number of instances in Ripperological studies in which various artifacts have been said to have featured in the case. Recently, a poster on the "Casebook: Jack the Ripper" message boards has been claiming that they found a knife that figures in the case--a knife found by Thomas Coram after the murder of third canonical Ripper victim Elizabeth Stride a number of streets away from the murder scene. Also of course there is the broken "Jack the Ripper knife" in the possession of veteran Ripperologist Donald Rumbelow that was said to have been found at one of the murder scenes. Well, maybe. (It appears to be a fact that there was no knife found at the most famous Ripper murder scenes.) The alleged shawl of fourth canonical victim Catherine Eddowes is another dubious "Ripper" artifact that comes to mind.

Tumblety Watch 2

Tumblety Watch 1

A few years back, a seller on ebay offered for sale a pocket watch that was inscribed with the name "Dr. Francis Tumblety" and that was said to have belonged to Irish-American Ripper suspect and quack Dr. Francis Tumblety (circa 1830-1903). There was also several years ago a Victorian "Jack the Ripper" inkwell offered for sale. It was not clear how it was connected to the case but the wording "Jack the Ripper" was handwritten on the base.

Such Ripper and Lincoln artifacts are colorful and interesting but because they don't seem to match up with the facts they are probably not the real McCoy despite claims about their authenticity. Possibly such items might either be hoaxes or there has been some confusion of facts along the way. Maybe not surprising given the fame of the Ripper case, and the Lincoln assassination similarly! Yet real or not, such things command a price at auction, despite the lack of proper provenance or clear links to the events and persons with which they are alleged to be associated.

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